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Syria

Islamic summit to urge Assad regime to negotiate

President Bashar Assad's government is to be urged to talk with Syria's opposition by Islamic leaders who are converging on Cairo. Their summit has prompted the first visit to Egypt in three decades by an Iranian leader.

Lebanese pan-Arabic Mayadeen Television said Islamic leaders at their two-day summit opening Wednesday would pressure Syria's President Assad to engage in "serious dialogue" with Syria's opposition to end nearly two years of warfare.

The news agency Reuters on Tuesday said a draft discussed on Tuesday by foreign ministers of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which it had sighted, did not mention Assad by name but it did pin most blame for violence in Syria on his government.

The draft, Reuters said, spoke of the "perpetration of massacres and towns and villages by Syrian authorities." It was unclear, however, whether Syria's ally, Iran, would back the tough wording.

Ahmadinejad visits Egypt

The apparent pressure mounting on Assad from many sides follows a surprise offer made on Monday by Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, the leader of Syria's opposition National Coalition which has its offices in Cairo.

Khatib said he was ready to meet Assad's deputy, Vice President Faruq al-Sharaa. Initially, Syria's opposition had demanded that Assad first step down. That changed last week to a demand that Assad first release 160,000 detainees.

Wrangle over preconditions

A prominent lawmaker from Assad's government, Fayez Sayegh, responded on Tuesday by rejecting such preconditions, saying Khatib's proposals should come "as a result of a dialogue, not before it begins."

Sayegh also accused Khatib of exaggerating the number of opposition supporters held in custody by the Assad regime.

Tuesday's focus in Cairo was also on Syria's ally Iran and the first visit to Egypt in more than three decades by an Iranian leader.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (pictured above) was given a red-carpet airport welcome by Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. Egyptian state media said both leaders discussed ways to boost relations "without resorting to military intervention."

President Ahmadinejad, who heads a predominantly Shiite Muslim state, later met Egypt's top Sunni cleric, Ahmed al-Tayyib, who is sheikh of the al-Azhar Islamic institute.

Cairo and Tehran severed ties after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution that saw Egypt offer exile to Iran's deposed shah and Iran become a center of opposition to Western influence in the Middle East.

Ties worsened in the same year when a peace treaty was reached between Israel and Egypt, whose then-President Anwar Sadat. His successor Hosni Mubarak, who was subsequently ousted in 2011, retained ties with the United States, Israel's backer.

Ahmadinejad's visit follows Morsi's visit to Iran last August for a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement. At the time, Morsi was highly critical of Iran's ally, Syria, calling the Assad regime "oppressive."

UN increases food aid

Inside Syria on Tuesday, intense fighting between rebels and government troops was reported near a border crossing with Jordan. A Jordanian security official said 17 civilians, including two Jordanians, were injured.

The UN's World Food Program said Tuesday it was expanding its humanitarian operations to reach one million more people in Syria by April. The UN agency is already trying to feed some 1.5 million vulnerable Syrians, by sending 400 truckloads of food each month.

Access across frontlines to rebel-controlled areas has been difficult. The UN estimates that more than 60,000 people have been killed since the revolt against Assad's regime began in March 2011.

ipj/kms (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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